To get a sense of an era in film, we often look at groups of talent. Consider the ‘Movie Brat’ generation of directors in the 70s, or the ‘Brat Pack’ and the rest of their generation of young American actors who came to prominence in the 80s. Perhaps the most concentrated of these groups of talented individuals are the ‘Seven Little Fortunes’, students at the Chinese opera school of master Yu Jim Yuen. At one time, the group included Yuen Mo, Yuen Wah, (Corey) Yuen Kwai, Yuen Biao and two students then called Yuen Lo and Yuen Lung, they would go on to become better known as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam Bo.

Hung, oldest of the Seven Little Fortunes, was the first to make his way into the Hong Kong film industry, giving his younger ‘brothers’ some of their first jobs, but while they would work together from time to time, he and Jackie developed their own styles, and their own stock companies. The two films in Eureka Video’s new double pack, 1978’s Warriors Two (only his third film as director) and The Prodigal Son, from 1981 are Hung’s homage to the history and style of Wing Chun, and to one of its (semi-legendary) proponents, Leung Tsan, depicted as an older man in the first film and an impetuous youngster in the latter.

The-Prodigal-SonThe Prodigal Son is, in many ways, a typical kung fu comedy. It sees Yuen Biao as a young Leung Tsan, who believes he is renowned in his town as ‘the streetfighter’, taking on all comers and winning his every fight with ease. In fact, his father pays off his opponents. Chan only discovers this after a friend drafts him in to fight opera star Leung Yee-tai (Lam Ching Ying) on his behalf. From there, the film follows a fairly typical story of training and revenge, leavened with a little comedy, but it’s in the telling that Hung excels.

Much of The Prodigal Son is as broad as other kung fu comedies of its era; there are the typical buffoonish characters with silly make up like very prominent moles and red noses who are there to engage in comedy that seems very specific to the local audience. The broadest comedy largely comes from Hung’s own role as Wong Wah-po, a friendly rival to Leung Yee-tai, who begins training Leung Tsan, finally leading his friend to start giving him ‘proper’ training. These training sequences too are very by the book, but they allow us to gain a greater appreciation for the intricacies of Wing Chun, clearly something Hung felt passionate about with these two films.

However, where The Prodigal Son differs somewhat is in the investment and characterisation it puts into its leading players. As Leung Tsan, Yuen Biao gives a surprisingly layered performance. The brash ‘streetfighter’ of the film’s first act is his broadest take on the role, this Leung Tsan is quick to anger and turns immediately to fighting to settle any disagreement. His moves reflect this; they are bigger and wider than we’ll see later. As he begins to follow Leung Yee Tai, and especially when he begins training in Wing Chun, Yuen Biao gives the character more discipline. Wing Chun is a largely contained style, and we see this reflected in Leung Tsan’s personality as he becomes more calculated both as a person and a fighter. It’s a genuinely interesting evolution, but not one that entirely sticks, as his quickness to violence and anger returns in the film’s closing section, for reasons we can understand.

The-Prodigal-SonOne of the most interesting choices here is for the film not to have a traditional villain. Yes, there is a face off between Yuen Biao and Frankie Chan’s Ngai Fei, but it’s not so simple as Ngai being the bad guy; if anything he’s set up as a mirror image of Leung Tsan, though one whose martial arts has always been strong. The fight sequences are astoundingly good. If the film has one weakness it’s perhaps that the finale isn’t its strongest fight, but that’s hardly a complaint when the rest of the action—be it the comedic sequence of Leung Yee-tai beating up a backstage intruder, while also painting him in clown make up or the brutal attack on the opera troupe, culminating in a ninja with a flaming flag attack Leung Yee-tai—is so good. However, it is the fights involving Frankie Chan (better known a composer with over 120 film scores to his credit), that are the all timers here. His fight with James Tien, as a former challenger who has now trained the arm that wasn’t broken last time they fought, is a great taster, but the close quarters Wing Chun battle between him and Lam Ching Ying may be my single favourite fight in all of this period of martial arts cinema: it’s graceful, intricate and brilliantly executed.

For my money, The Prodigal Son is Sammo Hung’s crowning glory in classical martial arts cinema. It’s an essential for anyone exploring the genre for the first time and if, for some reason, more seasoned fans haven’t seen it then this is the perfect way to do so.

The Disc

An interesting quirk compared to the old Hong Kong Legends DVD is that the print here has cast credits come up during characters’ first appearances. That noted, the 2K remastered picture looks fantastic. Clips seen in some of the extras make it clear how much work has gone in here, and the colours and details are more vivid than ever before.

The original Cantonese dub is presented with new subtitles, which one assumes are more accurate than those from the HKL release, certainly they are more detailed. If you like your kung fu movies to sound as silly as possible, the original English dub is here as well. I’ll pass, thanks.

A couple of interview extras, one with Wing Chun Sifu Guy Lai and the other with Sammo, Yuen Biao and Frankie Chan are ported over from the HKL disc, and both remain worthwhile. A new video extra has Frank Djeng meeting up with New York based Sifu Alex Richter. The first half; a tour of his studio and some stories about how he got into Wing Chun, is hit and miss, but the demonstrations of the style are worth watching.

Two commentaries, one with Djeng and Bobby Samuels, the other with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema, round out the extras. Both are informative and have an engaging dynamic between the commentators, there is of course some overlap, but enough unique discussion in each to make it worth listening to both tracks.

The Prodigal Son will be released in a Eureka Video Double Feature Limited Edition Blu-ray set along with Warriors Two (a review of which will appear on HeyUGuys shortly) on the 24th of January, 2022.

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